I finally had a chance to see Heavy Metal in Baghdad (2008) last week.
In spite of my reputation as a composer whose tastes run to the comic, I have always been fascinated (and driven) by the role music plays in contexts of exigency, crisis, or suffering -- whether we're talking about African-American spirituals and work songs, or an ensemble playing "Nearer My God to Thee" on a sinking ship, or the Quartet for the End of Time, which (in Alex Ross's telling) seemed to offer momentary respite from (and thus resistance to) a pinnacle of twentieth century barbarism:
The premiere of the Quartet took place on January 15, 1941 [at prisoner-of-war camp Stalag VIII A]. Several hundred prisoners of many nations crowded into the camp's makeshift theater, with the German officers sitting up front. The work bewildered much of the audience, but a respectful silence prevailed. [...] Like Britten in The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Messiaen responded to the mechanized insanity of the Second World War by offering up the purest, simplest sounds he could find.
The music of Acrassicauda (the subject of HMiB, and Iraq's only metal band) is anything but "pure" or "simple" -- instead, it sounds like an angst-soaked, rapid-fire reflection of the war-torn landscape of Iraq. And why shouldn't it? After all, as bass player Firas puts it, in Iraq, "headbanging itself could take you to jail forever." And, later:
Dude, I mean, I'm in a big risk right now, wearing this [Slipknot] T-shirt, because it's an American band... that could get you killed in Baghdad.
Back in high school I once had a conversation -- it was a typical high school conversation, I guess -- about whether suffering was a necessary prerequisite for true creativity. At the time, I took the devil's advocate position, arguing that the two weren't necessarily linked. (Ironically, I was suffering a lot at the time, while trying my damnedest to be as full-on creative as I could.)
Of course, "suffering" to a white lower-middle-class teenager in suburban 1980s America is not exactly comparable to the suffering of life in a war zone. I mean, my bands never had our practice space destroyed by a Scud missile, as Acrassicauda does in this film. There's a gap, as HMiB director Suroosh Alvi reminds us:
If you think about bands in the West, bands in Brooklyn, where our office is, they're all so spoiled, compared to Acrassicauda. In fact, we're all spoiled compared to these guys.
True enough. Still, I think most good artists, no matter how comfortable their material existence, strive for the level of creative urgency that is so clearly on display throughout this documentary.
Of course, there are degrees. Maybe the search for creative urgency does not typically include trying to make something so raw it can inspire fisticuffs. But most artists could probably find some point of resonance in sentiments like these (uttered by Marwan, Acrassicauda's drummer):
It just feels like you've been caged, like there's chains all around you. So you just want to, for two hours, for three hours, the practice time or, like, the live performance, free yourself from that chain, just like get that rage out. If I didn't play drums as hard as I can, as fast as I can, I was gonna kill someone. Each one of us will turn to be a killing machine.
Music born out of violence, so powerful that it can prevent violence: is there greater evidence of the power of this medium?
And in that vein, I'll close with this excerpt from the liner notes to Chris Schlarb's brilliant solo record, Twilight & Ghost Stories (which I got as a perk of our mixing session a few weeks ago):
Four years ago I was a sleeping ghost in an empty home. After quitting my job as an insurance adjuster I found myself working through a devastating separation which soon ended in divorce. Aimless and unemployed, I lost all structure and contact with the world outside. [...] Four years and fifty collaborators later, Twilight & Ghost Stories seems an odd choice for my first 'solo' album. There are hundreds of moments taken from their chronology in time and set alongside each other anew and I have acted only as the conductor of a giant, magnificent orchestra. To that orchestra, in some small way, I owe my life. [emphasis added]
And so say we all.